While sitting on a plane headed back to his hometown of Los Angeles from San Francisco, Colin Finlay noticed someone. In the seat beside him was a 10-year-old girl, with multicolored hair and fingernails, dodging and burning images of her Chihuahua with an iPhone. The "aha" moment can reveal itself in many ways. For Finlay, it came in the form of a child using a phone to execute a technique that was once held as an art form mastered by hand.
Finlay’s career is long enough that he remembers the days when he used his own hands to actively create photographs in a darkroom. One of the foremost documentary photographers working today, he would be among the first to acknowledge the gifts digital tools have bestowed upon his industry. But watching the girl on a phone editing her dog was quite a sight.
"I thought, so that’s the ubiquitousness of the image. This is what it has been filtered down to and what it has really become. For me, this meant it needed to evolve into a different space. I needed to bring my hands and ideas back to the image," he explains. "There needed to be something that had more of a statement, something that spoke of the individuality that had been reduced and lost."
Finlay spent the ’90s in a darkroom, processing film and making prints. Fast-forward to the digital age, and all he needs his hands for now is hitting a shutter button and picking up prints from the printer. By becoming more hands-on in the process again, he could start exploring other places in his very visual mind.
A month after the Chihuahua incident, Finlay was sitting at his desk staring at a 13×19-inch print of a photograph he had taken of Bobby Kennedy Jr., for Vanity Fair magazine. Knowing there could be more, he began experimenting with oils, acrylics, inks, salt reductions and a combination of other elements until he saw a picture emerging the same way it did in the oversized trays of his darkroom. What Finlay held in his hands now was an original piece of work, more reflective of his spirit and love of a craft that was becoming too mechanically driven for his taste.
"I come from printing all of my own work in a darkroom so I come from a very hands-on background," says Finlay. "The relative ease of digital has also brought a relative sameness to much of the work. What’s happening with digital technology and photography is that what was once a craft has been turned into Guitar Hero for photographers. It’s just really become something that has so aesthetically removed the individual from the actual photograph."
Using the image of Kennedy as a jumping-off point, Finlay has gone on to create a one-off series of stills, often portraits, that tell a multidimensional story of his subject using multiple images in one. Framed by layers of acrylics and oils, in one image the viewer looks through a Gibson guitar to see the musician in the center as he plays it. Closer to the viewer’s eye, the musician stands off to the side with his eyes closed as he listens to playback in the studio. A lyric sheet floats in the background. Another image shows a motorcycle rider from three different perspectives. There’s the portrait of the rider, a portrait of him riding and the detail of the bike. Finlay says the idea began with an oil drip from the rider’s bike. Calling the oil the blood of the motorcycle, he re-creates the look of the oil dropping and splattering to frame the image.
"It’s all of these things that represent who we are and what blood is and represents to the bike because he is the bike, the bike is him," Finlay explains. "So it’s the personification of the individual and that’s held in the essence of oil. I imagined it dropping onto the ground and splattering and then putting him inside that space because he is that space."
These are all individual works that Finlay says he couldn’t duplicate. Some take him an hour to complete; others, he spends a couple of days on, depending on how elaborate the process becomes. Telling a story within a single frame this way allows the seasoned photojournalist to cover different territory, putting his head in a new creative space where he can push his boundaries. Finlay has documented the human condition with a kind of compassion, empathy and dignity that’s hard to do when confronting the grim nature of war, conflict, famine and genocide. A searing collection of work showing what starvation looks like at a refugee camp in the Sudan is so jarring, it’s a challenge to not look away.
He fuses the same intensity and passion for visual storytelling into his commercial work. Bringing a sense of realism to Madison Avenue, Finlay is known for applying his documentary approach to the advertising campaigns he shoots. While working on a project about disappearing father-and-son traditions, he was photographing gauchos in Argentina when clothing retailer Ocean Pacific took notice of his work and asked him to create the same type of imagery on the North Shore of Oahu with their clothes draping surfers and models. The project helped launch him into the popular "lifestyle advertising" genre.
Bouncing from, say, the "killing fields" of Cambodia to Frank Sinatra’s house in Los Angeles for an ad campaign may sound like tough space to navigate, as Finlay admits when he recalls sitting in the legendary singer’s old abode while looking at the fresh mud on his boots. But for him, this is just how he works. His very different worlds blend together, and that’s his preference because in operating this way, he’s constantly pushed, both creatively and technically, and so is the emotional range of his images.
When DPP caught up with him earlier this year, he had just returned from spending two weeks hanging out of a helicopter in Arizona to document a copper mine and was looking forward to shooting a new ad campaign, while cataloguing about 25 years of scans and discovering some long-forgotten work along the way. Add to all that the work he’s creating for his blog, which is taking him in a whole new direction.
"Everything exists in the same creative spirit," he says. "A lot of the money that I do make in advertising really crosses back over into the documentary work, which characteristically is never that well funded, so one hand washes the other. The core of who I am is a documentary photojournalist, a guy who’s going to be in the Arctic Circle photographing polar bears or hanging out of a helicopter over Lake Magadi. Thankfully, I can explore some of these new spaces creatively and photographically. I’m focused on everything."
Finlay’s work has been featured by Vanity Fair, TIME, U.S. News & World Report, Los Angeles Times Magazine, Asia Week, the World Health Organization, UNICEF, Communication Arts and Discovery. He has earned honors from the Lucie Award/IPA, POYi (Picture of the Year International), New York Art Directors, International Center of Photography, and the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences.